08 January 2009

Book Review: Dead Lines

Dead Lines (2004)
By Greg Bear

Greg Bear is my favorite of the current crop of hard science-fiction authors—most of whom have names starting with “B.” In general, hard SF isn’t my cup of silver nitrate; in the realm of SF I prefer the brand that’s either sociological and introspective with less emphasis on science, or else has aliens blowing the beejesus out of things with ion cannons. But Greg Bear is not only skilled with making the science of his hard science-fiction interesting, he also does what often eludes most hard SF authors: create viable humans at the center of his stories.

He also has a wonderful geeky strain in him, dropping Ray Harryhausen and Edgar Rice Burroughs references into his novels. We’d probably get along great if we met.

If you’ve never read Greg Bear before, I can best describe him to you as Michael Crichton if he a) knew how to create a three-dimensional human being on paper, and b) didn’t let his politics twist his science. (Another big difference between them is that Bear is currently alive, which Crichton is currently not.) Bear’s work tackles the same sort of contemporary science-meets-the edge of science thrillers that Crichton made into his meat and potatoes. A good place to start reading Bear is either his breakthrough novel Bloodmusic or his award-winning tale of the next step in evolution, Darwin’s Radio. I think his masterpiece is The Forge of God, but that might get a touch on the heavy side for some new readers. Regardless, that gets one of my highest recommendation among modern SF.

Dead Lines, at first glance, looks like another hard SF thriller as Bear like to write ‘em, as it deals with a new form of wireless handheld communication. However, Dead Lines is really a horror novel with Bear’s SF touch woven through the supernaturalism. He takes his science-fiction background and applies it to the concept of ghosts—with fascinating and convincing results.

Most of Dead Lines moves deliberately; it’s definitely the slowest moving of Bear’s books that I’ve read. Protagonist Peter Russell, an aging photographer and producer of softcore films, has to confront the recent death of a close friend, the specter of his daughter’s murder two years ago, and a job offer to do promotion for the new wireless technology known as “Trans.” Peter drives around to his friends’ So. Cal houses, chats with Trans’s inventors, visits his ex-wife, and wonders if he’s starting to see things. There isn’t much suspense in these first two-thirds aside wisps of the unknown brushing against the cheek.

That doesn’t mean that this part of the book is dull; Bear sketches Peter and the people of his sunset world too well for a reader to feel bored. But not until it becomes obvious that Trans has tapped into the wrong, ahem, frequencies and has churned out the spirits of the dead in droves into the living’s world does the book kick up into the fright level. It’s a great final third, a scary ride into the catacombs under an old celebrity network of mansions that reads a bit like James Ellroy having M. R. James hallucinations. Bear isn’t content to write the ending as a standard thriller either; he has the touch to make the ethereal equally ethereal on the page. I wouldn’t have expected this skill from him based on his earlier novels, so it was a great surprise to find such metaphysical dread breathing onto the backs of my hands as I held my copy.

Modern horror readers will probably love Dead Lines, although they may not necessarily like the rest of Bear’s canon. Greg Bear fans, of course, will love it, and it improves on the staid Vitals that I read before it.